About thirty miles north of Jacksonville, along the banks of the St. Marys River, lies a little-known haven. Flora and fauna, both native and from far-away lands, exist in peaceful refuge on 16,000 acres of hardwood hammocks, pine forest, and tidal wetlands. A variety of animals, including imperiled species of rhinoceros, cheetah, antelope, and okapi (a rare giraffe relative) are at home in small zoo communities. Extensive, long-term conservation efforts that are at work in tandem with efforts in Africa and Asia, result in their populations being saved, grown, and even reintroduced into their natural habitats. Conservation scientists are trained here in their one-of-a-kind practices, and artists like renowned ballet dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose studio lies on the premises, are given space to creatively innovate and utilize the unique, natural inspiration.
This is White Oak. Records on the property date back as far as 1768. It was first acquired by the Gilman family in 1938, and first used for conservation efforts in 1982, when philanthropist Howard Gilman initiated a significant program. A decade later, The Howard Gilman Foundation began hosting national and international conferences at White Oak directly related to its three fields of interest: conservation and the environment, arts and culture, and public policy. The owners since 2013 are Mark and Kimbra Walter, who have continued to develop White Oak into the unique space that it is today.
Arbus Magazine and White Oak have partnered in an inaugural event that brings together these same fields of interest that are at work in this incredible location. Conservation and art will be celebrated in a two-day plein air painting event culminating in The Art of Conservation gala – a
tour by trolley to watch the artists working in three of White Oak’s conservation areas, an outdoor dinner by the river, and an auction of the artwork produced on site with a portion of the proceeds benefitting White Oak Conservation Foundation.
The nationally-renowned artists selected for this inaugural event will be painting outdoors, or en plein air — translating from French to “in the open air.” Plein air artists typically create their entire piece on site, and the practice emphasizes direct observation rather than stylized, narrative depiction. In a Huffington Post blog article on the subject, “Debate: Must ‘Plein Air’ Be Defined?,” author Daniel Grant says, “… [There] is the belief that plein air painting embodies a certain truth, reflecting the immediacy of the moment when the artist is at work, needing to make compositional and color value decisions quickly before the clouds roll in or the wind kicks up.”
The practice of plein air painting dates back to the early- to mid-19th century, when artist John Constable in England and the French Barbizon school of painters were part of a movement championing realism in art, arising in contrast to the romanticism that dramatized nature and was dominant at the time. Their works feature loose brushwork, and a softness of form and tonal qualities to color that give the impression of atmospheric effects. It is no surprise that this same approach became fundamental to Impressionism and its characteristic light effects, observed color, and fleeting gestures in dots and dashes of paint. There is an understandable immediacy and delicacy to plein air artwork, and a mystique attached to its creation. Grant quotes the founder and executive director of the International Plein Air Painters organization, Jacqueline Baldini, on how this affects those who collect the work: “Collectors become interested because they see a picture happening before their eyes … People relate to the poetry you capture.”
The poetry of White Oak will be captured in March by eight artists — Paul Ladnier, Robert Leedy, Randy Pitts, Mary O. Smith, Pat Mahoney, Pablo Rivera, Charles Dickinson, and Richard Lundgren (read about them on the pages that follow). They will set up their easels and materials in three areas of the property — along the river near the Riverside Pavilion, and beside the rhinoceros and giraffe communities — for two half-day painting sessions.
Gala guests can watch them at work, witness the observation, study, and execution of pieces that will be treasured keepsakes of one particular day in one extraordinary place. With the opportunity to purchase a painting at The Art of Conservation comes the possibility to take home the experience and the knowledge that aid has been provided to a global leader in the conservation of such beauty and natural harmony.
The Art of Conservation takes place Saturday, March 24.
The tour will begin at 4 p.m., with a cocktail hour
and dinner to follow at the Riverside Pavilion.
White Oak, 581705 White Oak Rd., Yulee. Tickets are limited.
For tickets, contact White Oak at (904) 225-3396.